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Seventeen hurt in Sierra Leone political violence

* At least 17 wounded in outbreaks of political violence

* District council by-election triggers fighting

* Government meets, suspends both parties' radio stations

* Mineral-rich country recovering from 1991-2002 civil war

By Christo Johnson

FREETOWN, March 14 (Reuters) - At least 17 people were hurt in Sierra Leone in two days of clashes between supporters of rival political parties armed with rocks and machetes after a council election, police and witnesses said.

In the capital Freetown, the headquarters of the opposition Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP), the former ruling party, was smashed up and part of it set on fire late on Friday during clashes with supporters of President Ernest Bai Koroma.

A Reuters reporter saw at least 10 injured being treated at a hospital in the city, many with machete wounds to their bodies, shoulders or hands. Witnesses said police had fired shots in the air on Friday to disperse brawling crowds.

On Saturday armed police sealed off the area of central Freetown, stopping members of the public from approaching the SLPP headquarters compound, where hundreds of party loyalists were still camped out having spent the night there.

Vice-President Sam Sumana called an emergency cabinet meeting at his Freetown residence, and ordered the radio stations run by both main political parties to be suspended.

Koroma's election in September 2007 unseated the SLPP from power, and the broadly peaceful transfer of power was hailed as a democratic success for a country devastated by a 1991-2002 civil war that killed 50,000 people.

But tensions between supporters of the SLPP and Koroma's All Peoples' Congress (APC) spilled over into localised violence during that campaign and on several occasions since, sometimes involving machete attacks reminiscent of wartime atrocities.

On Thursday, groups of SLPP and APC supporters fought during a by-election for a district council seat in Pujehun district in the generally pro-SLPP south of the impoverished country, which ranks bottom of the 177-nation U.N. Human Development Index.

Seven people were injured and eight others were arrested during the violence in Gendema town, the regional police commander, Assistant Inspector General David Sesay, told Reuters by telephone from the area.

"There was also shooting during the fighting, but with quick deployment of reinforcements of paramilitary police to the area, police were able to bring the fighting under control," he said.

The former British colony is rich in mineral resources, including the rich eastern diamond fields which during the civil war helped fund rebels infamous for murdering, raping and hacking lips, ears and limbs off innocent civilians with machetes.

Charles Taylor, the former president of neighbouring Liberia, is on trial for war crimes for his alleged role fomenting the war in return for diamonds from Sierra Leone.

Since the war ended, local and foreign companies have ramped up efforts to find and mine gold, bauxite and the titanium ore rutile, although Finance Minister Samura Kamara told Reuters last week that revenues would slump this year due to the global economic slowdown. [ID:nL4380362] (Writing by Alistair Thomson; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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